Are 9-1-1 Dispatchers First Responders?

Oct. 15, 2015
Emergency Communications Operators are first on-scene. We deal with chaos using only our voices. We respond to what we hear, give direction and control the situation connected only by a telephone line. As NG9-1-1 rolls out, live streaming will...

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) recently announced they would be pursuing a change. Not an unusual task for an organization whose vision is “to strengthen our communities by empowering and educating public safety communications professionals.” The unique thing is the change is one that makes you wonder, “How in the world did this situation ever manage to exist in the first place?” APCO is striving to change the job classification for emergency communications operators from “Administrative Clerical” to “First Responder.”

A Unique Conundrum

During my time as a 9-1-1 dispatcher I received a variety of responses to the disclosure of what I did for a living. Often it was, “Wow, that must be so hard,” or “Doesn’t that totally stress you out?” Sometime someone would ask, “What’s the craziest call you’ve ever gotten?” or “How do you handle listening to all that suffering all the time?” These questions all point to the same fact: 9-1-1 operators are first responders. Google defines first responder as, “someone designated or trained to respond to an emergency.” Isn’t that what we are doing? Someone, either a person involved in the situation or a bystander, dials 9-1-1 and we respond by clarifying the situation, sending on-scene assistance (completely handled by our co-worker in dispatch) and helping mitigate anything we can in the moment, like providing instructions on how to perform CPR. I doubt there is anyone who would sit in 9-1-1 or radio listening to the calls we receive, watching us perform our jobs who would not agree that we are part of the first response to a tragedy. But when it comes to reaching out for the same kind of understand and care that recognized first responders, such as police officer, fire fighters and emergency medical personal receive, suddenly we find ourselves faced with questions like, “Don’t you just answer the phone?” or “You weren’t actually there, so how can you suffer trauma from it?”

Part of the scene

Even though Google defines operators accurately, there is still many individuals in the emergency field who believe along the lines of more traditional definitions, such as Merriam-Webster’s definition of a first responder as, “a person (as a police officer or EMT) who is among those responsible for going immediately to the scene of an accident or emergency to provide assistance.” These individuals mostly agree that we face stress due to our work and that we are vital but we fall one step short of actually dealing with emergencies like they do. I don’t know if this train of thought is due to many first responders propensity to feel unique in their duties and separate and different from others or from the idea that a first responder has to actually be there, physically mitigating the crisis to be a true first responder. As a former emergency communications operator and a current firefighter/EMT I can understand this point of view. I pack-up, arrive on scene, grab my tools and enter the house physically solving the emergency. It’s easy for me to think about the 9-1-1 operators who took the original call(s) and dismiss them as part of the solution, until I stop and remember what it was like to take that call. If there were people in the house, the operator advised them to grab their children and pets and get out. The operator answered their questions about what was happening, “Yes, I’m still talking to you but I already have emergency crews on the way.” He or she soothed their fears and validated their understanding that although they wanted to go back in and grab a beloved item, it was a dangerous idea and would put themselves and the first responders at risk. If someone was injured, they would talk a civilian through procedures to mitigate the life-threat prior to any “first responders” arriving. Looking at it from this point of view, how can any say the operator wasn’t actually the first person on scene?

Residual effects

Most clerical workers don’t suffer from cumulative stress, vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Type a memo, answer a phone, bring coffee, and repeat. (I apologize to any secretary/receptionists who feel this is a mis-categorization of your job duties and I understand this is exactly the kind of thought process that I am arguing against that keeps 9-1-1 operators from being correctly labeled first responders.) Too many emergency communications operators are dealing with the effects of stress (normal people having normal responses to abnormal events) and trauma. Many suffer silently for two reasons: lack of resources and a draconian mindset that refuses to recognize we can actually be affected physically and emotionally by our work. We know we are first responders. We know we are part of emergency scenes albeit audibly. We know we have internal organizational first responder issues such as minimum staffing and mandatory overtime. But for some reason, we refuse to believe we need to recognize and mitigate stress and its consequences. Until we are willing to treat ourselves as first responders, others will continue to dismiss us when it comes to trying to seek the same help as other first responders. As individuals, we need to educate ourselves about the unavoidable consequences of our work (check out the fascinating study of the physiological effect of hearing screaming). Managers need to recognize and normalize the effects of stress, both basic and acute/traumatic and have programs in place to assist, such as peer support, critical incident stress management (CISM) and employee assistance programs (EAP).

Emergency Communications Operators ARE first responders. The first responder community is heavily benefiting from research and programs being used by the military to help veterans and 9-1-1 dispatchers need to pay attention. As it becomes more normalized for other first responders to acknowledge and mitigate their stress responses, we need to stay with them. APCO’s announcement of recategorization is a step in the right direction, but every individual who cares about the well-being of 9-1-1 operators needs to act “as-if” we already are first responders because we are.

About the Author

Michelle Perin

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. 

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